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  • Sunset at Mojave Desert in Twentynine Palms, CA

Hi everyone! My name is Jack Fusco, I’m a professional astrophotographer based out of San Diego. So much of my work involves planning out images weeks or months in advance for everything to come together. Some of my images from Southern California have been featured by National Geographic, NASA APOD, BBC and many others. I’m excited to share some of the planning I did to take some of my images around the 29 Palms area.

When it comes to astrophotography, or stargazing in general, you have a lot of things to consider and plan out. Of all the things you need to factor in, dark skies will always be the most important. The further you can get from light pollution the more incredible the night sky will appear. It’s guaranteed to be an experience you won’t forget.

One of the issues that can often come with finding dark skies is the remote location you need to travel to find them. Long drives before or after your stargazing session aren’t always easy or the safest option. Because it’s just a short drive from San Diego, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas and is right in the middle of some amazing stargazing locations, 29 Palms made for the perfect night sky home base for a long weekend of stargazing.

After making the drive from San Diego, I mapped out 3 nights and 3 locations of stargazing. With each location, I’ll share some both tips for photographing and stargazing.

Night 1 – Joshua Tree National Park

Distance from 29 Palms: 5 miles
Approximate Drive Time: 5 minutes

Starting in 29 Palms, I was literally 5 minutes to the North entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, an International Dark Sky Park. If you’re not familiar, an International Dark Sky Park is certification given to land with exceptional and protected views of the night sky.

Jack Fusco Joshua Tree Arch

The North entrance to Joshua Tree is closest to some of the most iconic locations in the park, like Arch Rock at the White Tank Campground, Skull Rock, Barker Dam (closed at night, but worth the day trip!), and the Jumbo Rock area.

I decided to start my night sky weekend by visiting the Skull Rock area to do some exploring of the nearby trails.

Jack Fusco - Joshua Tree Moonlit

For this area, I decided to bring a 14mm wide angle lens as the trail was right next to beautiful rock formations that I wanted capture. The wide angle allows for both the rocks and a large portion of the night sky to be caught in the same frame.

With the wide-angle lens, I was using exposure times of around 10-15 seconds. This will vary a bit from camera to camera, but it allows for a lot of light to be captured while keeping the stars looking pin point sharp!

This area of the park is a fantastic choice for stargazing as well. I recommend bringing along a headlamp with a red light to help preserve your night vision. Skull Rock has roadside parking that’s just a short walk to the trails. Once you’re a bit further from the road, you can protect your vision from any passing headlights. This will help make sure you can see the greatest number of stars possible!

Night 2 – Kelso Sand Dunes, Mojave National Preserve

Distance from 29 Palms: 85 miles
Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Jack Fusco - Kelso Dunes Milky Way

Located in Mojave National Preserve, I was very excited to make my first trip out to the Kelso Sand Dunes. Although you can’t possibly be closer than Joshua Tree to 29 Palms, the drive is still very easy to make to the dunes. If you enter “Kelso Dunes Trail” on Google Maps, it will bring you right to the trail head. The last short bit is technically off-road, but is still accessible taking your time with 2wd cars.

As with all locations, I strongly suggest arriving well before dark so you can familiarize yourself with the area and the trails. Because the trail here is across sand, it can be a bit harder to follow on windy days or even in the dark. Using an offline GPS map on your phone (in case you lose service) will help make sure you stay safe.

Jack Fusco Kelso Dunes MW Stargazer

The hike to the dunes isn’t a long one, but can be tiring once you start walking on the areas with soft sand. The dunes rise 650 feet above the desert, so making your way up hill can also be on the strenuous side.  If the idea of climbing up huge sand dunes doesn’t sound appealing to you, there are still absolutely incredible to see without heading up hill! Whether you plan on making your way to the top or just close enough for a great view, be sure to bring plenty of water.

The view of the surrounding Providence Mountains is almost as beautiful as the dunes and they also help block out light pollution. This means not only do you have an incredible view of the stars, but the surrounding area is very dark as well. The dunes can be very tricky to navigate in total darkness, so plan on exploring while the sun is out and keeping closer the trail once it’s dark.

Use an app like StarWalk or Sky Guide to help locate any visible planets or the Milky Way while you’re here! No matter what you’re looking for should be easily visible.

For photographing this area, I mainly stuck with lenses that were 35mm or wider. Depending on your distance to the dunes, a 50 or 85mm lens would capture the curves in the dunes wonderfully.

A wide-angle lens in this location will mean getting really low to the sand to pick up some of that awesome texture and lines created by the wind!

Night 3 – Amboy Crater, Mojave Trails National Monument

Distance from 29 Palms: 50 miles
Approximate Drive Time: 50 minutes

Recently designated as a National Recreation Trail, Amboy Crater offers an easy hike through a lava field straight to the edge, and even in to, an extinct cinder cone volcano. I planned my hike here to be lit by the rising Moon so I could take photos both leading up to the crater and inside and have them well lit. Although it washes out a bit of the stars, the Moon can provide enough light so you can see detail in even dark foregrounds like the lava field surrounding the crater.

Jack Fusco - Amboy Crater Jupiter Saturn Above Mojave Trails National Monument

As with all desert locations, be aware of temperatures and conditions before heading out. Warm conditions can continue in to the night, so be sure to bring enough water. Proving the temperatures are suitable for outdoor activity, the hike to the crate is just over a mile and approachable for all levels. It’s very well defined through most of the trail and easy to keep your way. The approach to the rim or interior of the crate isn’t particularly difficult, but it does get somewhat steep. The lava rocks can be sharp and lose in certain areas. At night, this can make coming down much more difficult than going up. If you’re not comfortable, the view outside of the crate is still spectacular.

One of the highlights of being at the Amboy Crater is the nearly 360 view of the night sky while you’re there. Because the crater sits in the middle of a large lava field, you’ll have an amazing unobstructed view of the night sky from horizon to horizon.

Jack Fusco - Amboy Crater Mojave Trails National Monument

For taking photos, your focal length will likely vary depending on how close to the crater you’re setting up. From further away, a wide-angle lens will make the volcano look small in your frame and capture a huge portion of the sky above and around.

To set up along the trail, try using a lens 35mm or above if you want the crater to appear larger in your photo. As you approach or enter in to the crater, a wide-angle lens will help capture your surrounding area and still show off the incredible landscape.

No matter what location you decide on, you’re sure to come home with a unique and unforgettable stargazing experience. Although I live close enough to make the drive to any one of these locations, I’m happy I chose to stay in 29 Palms to start my adventure. Being able to cut a few hours off my drive each way allowed me the time and energy to explore these incredible areas. These are locations I will 100% be returning to in the near future and can’t wait to share more photos! Follow me over on Instagram (@jackfusco) to see all my new photos from around the 29 Palms area!

If you visit and get a great photo, be sure to tag @visit29palms and #visit29palms for a chance to have your photo featured!

Jack Fusco Visit 29 Palms

Jack Fusco is a landscape astrophotographer / timelapser based out of San Diego, California. What began as a way purely to document his travels as a touring musician, photography has become his mainform of creative expression.

On his often-sleepless journey, he strives to share the wonder of the night sky with as many people as possible. Whether chasing the Milky Way along coast lines or capturing the Northern lights in unforgiving remote locations you’re sure to find him coffee in hand, smiling up at the stars.

Many of Jack’s images are often planned days, weeks, or even months in advance while waiting for weather and celestial objects to align. The resulting work shows a true and complete dedication to his craft. His work has been featured by National Geographic, TEDx, LA Times, NASA APOD, BBC, Forbes and many more. Find his work at www.jackfusco.com |www.instagram.com/jackfusco  

Recently during my tour of the Mojave Desert in southern California, I was captivated by the natural landscape of this mysterious desert, with its open vistas of rugged wilderness that gives you the privilege to experience total freedom of space when camping or hiking. The authenticity of the Mojave’s landscape enhances the natural beauty of the southern California terrain. I am an adventurous traveler, one that loves exploring the mystery of a place, and discovering the hidden treasures of a destination. During my travel to the Mojave Desert, I stumbled upon a rural desert city, called Twentynine Palms.  

Twentynine Palms is a natural wonderland of desert wilderness and rich cultural history which is vividly captured with historical murals that are displayed throughout the city.  The city of Twentynine Palms I learned is not only the home of the popular and historical headquarters of Joshua Tree National Park, it is also an official gateway community to Mojave Trails National Monument and Route 66, which to my delight is a short drive of about (49 minutes), north of Hwy 62 via Amboy Road.  A key feature that I noted of the Mojave Trails National Monument is that it connects the Mojave National Preserve with Joshua Tree National Park, which “ensures the biological connectivity of this landscape, while preserving traditional uses, such as hunting and off-highway vehicle recreation.” (BLM website)

Welcome to Mojave Trails National Monument

The Mojave Trails National Monument was designated in 2016, and is home to several significant natural treasures, such as the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of the original and historic Route 66, which takes you to the old world, as you discover vintage road signs, iconic neon signs, historical highway motels, restaurants, and motor courts.

Moreover, you will find in the city of Barstow, California many street murals depicting and celebrating the iconic Route 66. This iconic route further takes you into the historical mining and ghost towns of southern California, such as Amboy and Calico.  

Route 66 has been popularly referred to as the “mother road” because it was originally used by many Americans as travel path, for vacations to California. It was at one time the link for the United States across the rocky mountain divide to the Pacific Ocean.  It was also a travel path that was used by many to  migrate to different parts of the US, hence it  “celebrates the legacy and resilience of the American people, more significantly connects you to the essence of the American spirit.

Significantly, the romance and nostalgia of Route 66 is immortalized in popular culture, in movies, songs, such as Bobby Troup’s (1946) hit, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”, and the (1960s), Route 66 television show. The fascinating discovery for me on this tour was the Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark. An adventurer’s treat, a volcanic cinder cone in the middle of the Mojave Desert that resembles a lonely isolated mountain.

Visit 29 Palms and discover the iconic Route 66 to Amboy Crater Natural National Landmark in the Mojave Trails National Monument

Located 1.5 miles south of Route 66, and 55 minutes from the city of Twentynine Palms, Amboy Crater stands at 250 feet tall, 1,500 feet in diameter, and was formed by ash and cinders. Situated on one of the youngest volcanic field in the United States with its last documented eruption taking place 10,000 years ago, Amboy Crater is truly a geological wonder.

You can hike the trail on the west of the cinder cone, with the trail taking you to an opening where it seems that a one time a violent volcanic eruption ruptured the crater wall. CalWild provides a great description of the crater, explaining “inside, of the 250-foot-high crater contains two lava dams, which have formed small lava lakes. These are now flat in general appearance, covered with light colored clay, creating the impression of miniature “dry lakes.” Beyond the crater lies 24 square miles of lava flow, that has features of lava lakes, collapsed lava tubes and sinks, spatter cones, and massive flows of basalt.”

By hiking up to the 1,508-foot-tall center rim you will be rewarded with an awesome view that reveals an epic desert landscape. I recommend hiking the Amboy Crater trail in spring or early fall, when temperatures are cooler.

Visit 29 Palms and discover pristine sand dunes in the Mojave Desert, California

My partner, being the romantic he is, planned the last part of the tour towards the end of the day, so that I would experience the bold, brilliant, colors of the sun setting in the Mojave Desert.

As the evening progressed into the night, to my delight, I was taken to the exotic Kelso Dunes, located in the Mojave National Preserve. The night was lit up by the bright, sultry full moon. The light of the moon guided us in our hike to the top of the dunes. Once at the top you will experience panoramic views of the surrounding dunes and peaks, a picture perfect sea of sand that awakens all your senses. As we lay on the sand, we could feel the stillness of the night, the cool grains of the sand on our feet, the refreshing cool breeze of early fall silently fanning us. The Kelso Dunes have an energy of peace and tranquility that awakened my soul to experience the harmony of natures wonderland. 

According to popular belief, the dunes are noted for their singing.
 Jennifer Morrell describes “Kelso is one of a few acoustic dunes that produce a squeaking or booming sound as sand grains compress and slip over one another. A silica coating on the grains that helps them stick together also resonates when they are moved.”

Please note: that the wind and the sand continuously changes the outline of the dunes, this makes navigating the trail difficult, hence there is no permeant hike trail to the very top of the dunes.  Furthermore, driving through the Mojave Preserve to the Kelso Sand Dunes can be difficult, and requires planning and navigation research.

For more information on these destinations, visit:
Mojave Trails National Monument
Amboy Crater Natural National Landmark, Mojave Trails National Monument
Route 66, Mojave Trails National Monument
Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Sand Dunes

Ash Maharaj is an Advisory Board member for the 29 Palms Tourism Business Improvement District, and owner of the iconic Harmony Motel. Visit Ash’s blog to read more on her adventures in the Mojave Desert.

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